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Athlete's Guide to Surviving Cold Training

Wellness Feature

Written by Lauren Hunsber

Photography by Michael Matti

In general, exercise is essential for good health, no matter the season. However, being active in freezing weather presents unique challenges for the body. If you tend to train hard in cold temperatures, poor planning can lead to exhaustion and a suppressed immune system. This can leave you susceptible to everything from respiratory infections to the full-blown flu. If you don’t want to spend your holidays lying on a couch, remember these training and recovery tips and tricks.

Pay attention to hydration: Cold weather can suppress your desire to drink water. While you might not sweat as much, water vapor is expelled in greater quantities through the breath as your body works to warm the freezing air. This is important for skiers and snowshoers who tend to expend copious amounts of energy while sweating very little. Even if you aren’t thirsty, drink water and electrolytes like it is a summer afternoon. Your body will thank you and recover much quicker.

Layer, layer, layer: Sweat levels don’t just affect your hydration. Wearing even slightly sweat-soaked clothing can cause your body to exert more energy to stay warm. Dress in many layers so you can shed the outermost layers as soon as you feel your core temperature ramping up. Remember, it’s OK to feel a little chilly, especially when starting to exercise, in order to maintain a dry base layer throughout the activity.

Maintain optimal nutrition: When in cold temperatures, especially at higher elevations, you have to work harder to maintain a healthy temperature. To aid your body, feed it a steady pace of healthy foods throughout the day. This isn’t an opportunity to try a new fad diet or fasting for the first time. Give your body plenty of reliable fuel.

Get more sleep: Sleep is crucial for recovery, and you might want even more during the colder months. With less daylight and more energy expenditure during waking hours, it’s the perfect time to snuggle up, channel your inner grizzly bear and get some extra sleep.


How cold is too cold: According to the University of Wisconsin Madison, zero degrees F might be a good indicator that indoor activity is a safer option. Anything under negative 20 degrees F should be not be attempted as frostbite can occur on the face and extremities within a short exposure time.

Wind chill calculations: Wind chill should be a factor when determining whether to lace up the running shoes or head out on a bike ride. Athletes need to remember to account for their speed when crunching the numbers. Simply add your mph speed to the wind speed to get an accurate understanding of the chill you face.

Warm up in the warmth: Warming up is crucial for the body to get ready for any kind of movement. But, no need to suffer more than necessary. If possible, warm up, cool down and stretch inside, near the comfort of a heater. Your joints, which take a particularly long time to adjust to the cold, will thank you when it’s time to recover.


You might desire a little more heat with your recovery treatment after suffering chilling winds, but for the most part, rely on time-tested recovery habits to get you through:

Relax: Epsom salt or ice bath, do what makes you feel calm after long periods of exertion. Massages are often a great idea during cold days to aid with circulation to the extremities.

Rest: After time in the snow, your body often begs for rest. Counteract the cold with lots of sleep and leisure.

Replenish: Choose what nourishes your body best, and enjoy it. Keep it simple and packed with nutrition so you can feel your best even on week-long winter vacations.

Rejoice: One of the benefits of recreational winter sports is often the company.  Spend your recovery evenings recounting the thrills and experiences you had with loved ones.


rolonged exposure to the cold isn’t just uncomfortable. It can cause debilitating health conditions. While frostbite is the most hyped concern, there is a spectrum of ways lower temps can show up in your body:

Chilblains: According to the Mayo Clinic, chilblains are “painful inflammation of small blood vessels in your skin that occur in response to repeated exposure to cold but not freezing air. Also known as pernio, chilblains can cause itching, red patches, swelling and blistering on your hands and feet.” Chilblains often heal by themselves after being removed from cold conditions, but may reoccur season after season. Risk factors include low body fat, gender (women are more susceptible), poor circulation, autoimmune disorders and clothing that restricts blood flow or remains wet for prolonged amount of time.

Trench foot: This term was coined by soldiers during WWII, and it occurs after extended exposure to cold, and specifically wet, conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list the symptoms as “tingling and/or itching sensation, pain, swelling, cold, and blotchy skin, numbness and a prickly or heavy feeling in the foot. The foot may be red, dry and painful after it becomes warm. Blisters may form, followed by skin and tissue dying and falling off. In severe cases, untreated trench foot can involve the toes, heel or entire foot.” The best way to prevent trench foot is to keep footwear and socks dry.

Frostbite: One of the most severe cold-induced conditions is frostbite, which occurs in three stages. The first stage results in redness and tingling and can be treated with first-aid warming procedures. Stage two is superficial frostbite, and the signature symptom is warming of the skin despite being exposed to frigid cold. This is a sign of serious damage and can result in blistering that appears up to 24 hours after the initial exposure. The most serious stage, stage three, leads to muscle or joint failure and extreme blistering that occurs 24 to 48 hours after exposure. This is when the tissue turns black, dies and potentially falls off the body.

Hypothermia: When the body’s internal temperature drops below 95 degree F, hypothermia sets in. This can result first in slurred speech, extreme shivering and fatigue, and proceeds with abnormal heart rates and death. The easiest way to prevent the condition is to dress properly and not leave any parts of the body exposed when facing extreme temperatures and wind chills.

Skier’s Thumb: This isn’t a condition based on temperature, but still a common injury this time of year. Skier’s thumb occurs when an athlete falls and jams the thumb into a pole. This injury is best treated by a physician

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